Fight the Power: How to Read, and Re-Read, the Book of Revelation

When I heard that Elaine Pagels, world-renowned scholar of New Testament and the history of the Early Church, had written on the Book of Revelation I was intrigued. The conflict of generations—whether WWII, the Civil War, or contemporary culture wars—is seen through the lens of this controversial text, and its language has been perpetually available for those who would demonize their enemies. 

But what Pagels demonstrates in her newest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, is that history matters, as does interpretation: Who is the empire John is speaking against? Who is Babylon? And, for that matter, who was John?

I sat down with Dr. Pagels at the Palomar Hotel in Philadelphia on the Ides of March (the 15th) to discuss the book.


WG: I’m interested, as a scholar of prophecy, in your take on the book of Revelation as “interpretative” rather than predictive.

EP: American Christians assume that what prophecy does is predict specific events to happen. And of course that’s the way the Book of Revelation has been read. I got fascinated with the way this book has lived for 2000 years—from the Franciscans, the Catholics, and the Protestants battling over it in Europe, and then during the American Civil War, with people on both sides reading it. And in World War II and the Iraq War as well.

They read it, as you say, as predicting this means this, or the beast is this. But prophesy, as we know, is a highly interpretative art, and the way this book lives and has lived for two thousand years is by interpretation and reinterpretation. The way this book has lived has to do with the openness of these vivid symbols for John of Patmos—like the headed beast, bright red, or the Whore of Babylon, or 666, or the Battle of Armageddon—about how those have been read and interpreted throughout the centuries.

When people pick up Revelation today they are encountering it as part of the Bible, and that carries lot of freight.

Yes, and that is what I realized when I started to work on it, how contested that was. You know, in the years just after John wrote—maybe 60 years later—there is this movement called the New Prophesy, a charismatic revival movement with both men and women prophets. For them the Book of Revelation tells us that the New Jerusalem is coming soon, Jesus is about to return—and one of the prophets actually says that he returned in the form of a woman. Have you encountered this?

A little bit, when I did my work on female prophets. But do we have any sense of what John’s gender politics were?

Many feminist critics have read the Book of Revelation and said that the images available for women in the book are either the virgin who represents Jerusalem, and the whore who represents Babylon, or the mother clothed with the son who was giving birth to the Messiah. And these are absolutely opposite images. It’s as though they offer the paradigm of the whore, the virgin, or the mother, with nothing in between.

One of things that I appreciate about your book is that you talk about how important it is to understand the author as a Jew who found the Messiah for Israel, and not as a separatist Christian.

If you had asked John, “Are you a Christian?” I think he would have been shocked. In the book of Acts it says the disciples were first called “Christian” at Antioch. Well, that’s Syria. And that’s where Paul was preaching, and Paul’s followers were preaching to Gentiles, primarily. The first Christian that we know from Syria, Ignatius of Antioch, is a Syrian convert. And there are many others who are Gentiles who came to this movement from paganism.

But John, of course, is absolutely steeped in Israel’s tradition. We have to remember that he didn’t have a New Testament because it hadn’t been put together yet.

You point out the ideological conflict between John’s self understanding as a Jew as it related to the Jesus ministry and how Revelation can be seen as an internal document, recording intra-Jewish conflict (later read by Irenaeus as intra-Christian conflict).

I think the primary polemic is directed against Rome because the Romans had destroyed his people and destroyed Jerusalem and so forth. But in the Letters to the Churches, John says that Jesus addressed his followers saying things like, “some of them say they are Jews and they are not.” And refers to “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.” She’s a false prophet, like Balaam—but of course those are insult names for Gentiles that John would have gotten from the Hebrew bible.

And of course both of these “false prophets” were Gentiles.

They were. And they were saying things that John thought were completely wrong; they were teaching people, he thought, to violate purity in terms of sexuality and in terms of food.

So John detests them—and he thinks Jesus detests them.

It was really fascinating to me to read that John would have been totally horrified by the accomodations St. Paul was willing to make for newly converted Gentiles.

Yes. For John, this woman Jezebel is encouraging porneia (which means sexual immorality) and teaching Jesus’ followers to eat food offered to idols. In the ancient world, people didn’t have meat very often but when they did it was often meat that came from the temple, where the lamb or the goat had been sacrificed in honor of the god Dionysus or the god Zeus. And then it would be sold in the meat markets.

Paul’s followers, who were mainly Gentiles, asked him if it was all right to eat meat that had been offered to the gods, and he says in Corinthians I, “Well, it is alright because the gods don’t exist and we know that, so it doesn’t really matter if you eat it or not. You don’t want to offend your brother or sister, but unless somebody else thinks you are doing something really wrong there is no problem eating that meat.”

And then people asked, “Well what about marrying someone outside of the group?” Paul thought marriages between believers in Christ and unbelievers were quite all right. But John’s context is that of a Jew who is serious about purity laws. For a Jew, marriage to a gentile would be highly questionable—and for a conservative, devout Jew like John it would be sexual immorality.

I think that it is an interesting way to understand porneia (which has been translated variously as adultery, or same-gender sexual contact). But reading in light of John’s other purity concerns, it makes sense to translate it that way even if that is not how it is normally understood.

Yes. It simply means sexual immorality. Paul warns against porneia too, but his questions indicate that he has different attitudes about sexuality because he’s talking to Gentiles—and I think he thinks it doesn’t really matter for them.

Let’s drive forward two thousand years. What does your reading of Revelation offer to the contemporary struggle over religion and politics in America?

I do think, as an American, that the separation of religion and politics is very important because we have so many religious groups. But I realize that it’s not enough just to complain when politicians fuse them, because politics and religion have been fused for most of the human race for most of our history.

And so I was asking myself, “Wait a minute—when did they get separated?” I think we Americans mostly think about the American Revolution and the French Revolution when we set up a secular government.

But there were people in the ancient world that tried to create a secular relationship to government where nobody else did—and those people were Jews. Because the government of the nations that conquered them—Egypt and Babylonia and Syria and the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great and Rome—were all religious empires.

When people were conquered by Rome, they were required to worship the Roman gods in addition to their own; the only group that dissented from that were Jews. Romans decided it was more trouble to try to force them to worship their gods than to accommodate their peculiarity in refusing to do so. So two thousand years ago Jews figured out ways to have a relationship to government along the lines of, “Okay. We are loyal to government but we are not worshiping the way the rest of subject people do.” And they did it through taxes and they did through sacrifices.

And then when followers of Jesus were not only many of them Jews, but also suspect of treason, they created a much wider rift between their group and the political empire. I think that’s very much the background of John’s book.

Since prophecy is an interpretative practice and the text of Revelation is so polyvalent, are there any readings of revelation that are out of bounds?

Well the question is, who sets the bounds? For many groups, people will say, well the way we read it is the only right way. But I would start to look at the whole history of this book, and how it has lived beyond the context in which John wrote it (the Jewish war against Rome and the world that in which he and the Jewish people were suffering under Roman oppression). I found it most useful to look at as many interpretations as we find.

I was also really interested in the divide between the Western church and the Eastern church and the role that Revelation played in that. Could you say something about some of the other biblical books that were contested?

It is really interesting to think that the Christian movement survived for nearly 400 years without a New Testament in the form we have it now. There were books, of course, that circulated from the first century on—like John’s book, the gospel of Matthew, the gospel of Thomas.

But it’s really only after Constantine became emperor that bishops were free to talk publicly about lists, as in: what is the right list of the New Testament books? We have a whole range of those lists—most of them leave the book of Revelation out. Eusebius’s Church History is the first such history we have. Eusebius, a bishop, is writing in about 325-340, right after Constantine became emperor and held the Council of Nicea. Eusebius makes a list of twenty-two recognized books, including the four gospels and the letters of Paul and various other texts—and then at the end he says it seems right to add the book of Revelation, although some people debate that one.

So he has a list of disputed books like the Shepherd of Hermas, and Clement. And then he has a list of illegitimate books. None of those are now in the New Testament (like the Gospel of Thomas).

But Eusebius puts Revelation both on the list of recognized and illegitimate books—showing how intense the arguments were about that book.

So about this period when Constantine becomes emperor, and Christianity becomes the state religion. What are the implications of that with regard to this prophetic text?

That’s such an important question because many people could easily say look, “John’s prophecies were wrong. He said the Roman Empire was going to be destroyed. And it wasn’t destroyed. Actually, the emperor converted and now we have a Christian empire. So forget those prophecies—they just didn’t happen.”

What Constantine did was appropriate those images. He said, “I’m ruling in the power of Christ, and I’ve overcome the evil power. And the evil power was my enemy, my co-emperor whom I have killed.” And over at his palace he has the images from John’s Book of Revelation, which he absolutely co-opts.

Like the dragon banner…

Yes the dragons. Constantine had it right in his palace—you would walk into the palace and see this huge banner. It’s Christ spearing the evil power embodied in the great beast. But other Christians have said to me today, “Well, this book is a prophesy against empire and it shouldn’t be appropriated by the powers that be.” This book is a book of rebellion.

It’s a book of challenge to the people in power, and that is the way it has been understood in very powerful movements in this country.

If we were going to reinterpret this text today, if Christianity is in the American sense, in the global sense, is an empire with which to be contended, who might be the people rebelling be? Who would John belong to?

Someone like Tony Campolo would say that for a new generation of evangelicals it’s the American empire, the one with control of the military, with global reach, that Christians should oppose. Although, of course, many evangelical Christians in this country would hotly debate that.

So battles continue over the interpretation of this book. One of the problems I have with this book, as you know, is that it pictures a war against of the forces of good against the forces of evil—people can plug in anyone they want.

You explain how in modernity the idea of the Beast and the Antichrist get stitched together from disparate Johannine literature. Can you talk about who the author of John was—and was not—in the Revelation versus the Johannine epistles and the gospels?

Yes, the confusion is precisely because some people said this book was genuine prophecy and some people said, it’s unintelligible, it’s crazy, it makes no sense. Some Christians said it was written by a heretic. (This is in the second century with the Arian controversy.) While others “No, no. It’s written by a disciple of Jesus, John of Zebedee.”

And that is the traditional description of course. But it probably wasn’t, because the book is so completely different in language—the quality of the Greek in the Revelation is much poorer than that in the Gospel of John.

That connection between the Antichrist (mentioned in the Epistles of John) and the Beast of Revelation is made in the second century by Arius when he wants to connect the enemies of Christ in the empire, the Roman rulers, with the heretics inside the group.

He makes the connection and so it is made throughout history.

Your work is also a reminder of the question of genre in the text, that there are things in the Bible that we take more literally and others less so because we understand it’s made of multiple genres.

Yes. I think it may be well be true that John is writing in these prophetic images not only because that’s his language, culturally, but also because it is dangerous for a Jew to speak against the empire.

What would you say the book of Revelation has to offer to people who are not religious, who are not Christian, who are not Jews?

Well, I think that anyone who reads it will see it is a book of incredibly powerful images. It’s a resource that has been part of American history, for better and for worse, for a couple hundred years, but also part of a much wider span of culture: some people will hate it, but others, if they have no religious relationship to it, might be artists, musicians, or filmmakers who see this an enormous resource of imagination.